Vodka, pickled cucumbers and Pope John Paul II might spring to mind when someone mentions Poland. Obviously there’s more to Poland than that. On the world map of design, Poland is marked by creative agencies that produce high-level design and employ some of the best programmers in the world. There’s also a crowd of freelancers and visionaries who have received worldwide recognition.
For the people I interviewed, Web design is life. The art directors and freelancers highlighted here work in all sorts of environments, and they answer questions related to our field. You’ll have the opportunity to see Polish Web design from a number of perspectives — and to form your own opinion while browsing selected productions.
The State Of Things
Question: Can you name some of the milestones in Polish Web design? What are the biggest and most important productions in recent years?
Jacek Opaluch of K2 Internet: If milestones are things that have changed the perception of Web design, we have to mention Internet locations, events and designs. In my opinion, the locations would inlude mocnweb.pl, a forum that no longer functions and is probably only remembered by people over 30. It was a place where people could share their initial experiences and which, if I remember correctly, had the first carefully selected catalogue of Polish Web designers’ websites.
Then there was the everlasting webesteem.pl, steadily breaking records as the website with “the layout that never changed.” There were always several people around — some significant, like Bartek Gołębiowski, Jędrek Kostecki, Bartek Rozbicki, Wojtek Krosnowski, Wojtek Piotrowski, Piotr Łupiński and Łukasz Twardowski — whose attitude toward the Internet undoubtedly had great influence on thinking and design. There were many more people whose names I don’t remember, unfortunately, for which I apologize.
Certain designs are stuck in my mind. These were well known, not just in Poland, and sometimes they were great examples to follow. Some have been replaced by newer versions, so giving the URLs here might be pointless, but they definitely include: Max Weber’s pdk.pl, a Flash portal with much character (probably the first in Poland); Nokia (created by K2 Internet); plama.art.pl and its subsequent versions; feta.pl; Sullivan’s Productions; click5.pl; Ars Thanea; cookie.pl; and recently, StudioKxx and huncwot.com. These are all first-class websites. Unfortunately it’s impossible for me to name every excellent website.
In my opinion there were two other crucial events that gave shape to things: agencies went public (a sort of goodbye to the formative years of Web design) and eBay debuted in Poland. These events showed the quality of our service and proved that the Polish internaut had been highly underestimated abroad.
Question: Are there any significant differences between Web designing in Poland and in the rest of Europe when it comes to artistic development?
Jacek Opaluch: There are differences in budget, in the attitudes of clients and in understanding the Internet’s potential. Statistically, I don’t see any difference in the quality of the things we do: we win awards, we are jurors and we build among the best of the websites that present outstanding design — just like the rest of the world.
Kamil Kaniuk of Merix Studio: Polish programmers and coders are generally well regarded, which results from our observations and experience — often in cooperation with foreign firms. Numerous highly skilled Web developers are in Poland whose code is of world-class quality. Here at Merix Studio, we are searching for such people. The skills of our coders have been appreciated by the British company Independent News and Media, which prepared a series of test tasks for us before they decided to commission us to work on their leading brands (The Independent and Herald, for example).
We are less inspired by Flash achievements and augmented reality (so popular right now) than are other interactive agencies in Poland. We are more interested in the productions of smaller flexible firms such as 37signals, nclud, Reactive and Clearleft. We invest in flexible and cost-optimal open-source software (Drupal, WordPress, Magento), because it can easily substitute for expensive commercial solutions.
Open-source software is regarded slightly differently in Poland than it is in Western countries; the opinion that any self-respecting interactive agency should have its own original content management system (CMS) still prevails here, but this is not so. Just look at the US government: Whitehouse.gov is based on Drupal.
In the current period of economic slowdown, Western companies are looking for ways to reduce costs while maintaining good quality. Many companies outsource to such countries as Poland, and these companies often have funds at their disposal that allow them to be more open to creative ideas. This is encouraging for Polish Web designers.
Question: When was the starting point of innovative Web design in Poland? When did new media settle in Poland for good?
Łukasz Twardowski of Cookie.pl: The first thing I remember from the Internet was an interactive advertising campaign for Frugo juice. The campaign was created by an agency, and it was the first Polish viral ad. It probably significantly increased interest in the Internet as a medium for advertising, and it collided with the so-called “Internet bubble,” which burst before any innovative design came into being.
Still, this was the time when most designers I admire became active. Some independent websites on Web design were created, like Mocny Web or Webesteem. They attracted people who already thought of themselves as designers for new media. Looking back, I see that what pushed us forward was energy and optimism rather than skills and knowledge.
I think we became aware of both (i.e. skills and the role of Web design) about three or four years ago, but the awareness wasn’t strong yet. The major problem with Web design in Poland is that the best interactive agencies give priority to advertising, and design is a secondary issue. Small clients such as photographers and architects, who might desire and deserve the best designs, often don’t have enough money to employ professionals. It’s great to see, though, that cultural institutions have more money to spend on the Internet, and they spend it wisely.
Question: Is it possible to identify specific patterns in Polish Web design? Is every significant website really different from all the rest?
Łukasz Twardowski: I wish Polish Web design had German discipline, Scandinavian simplicity and our knightly imagination. Polish designs are often much more daring than those of our neighbours. Still, if we want to develop our philosophy of design and be visible to the world, then we have to make more effort.
The economy in Poland has been improving, and the only thing we need now is more energy and optimism. Mocny Web died naturally, and Webesteem is on its last legs. What we lack is a central forum where young designers (in a sense, all of us are “young”) can see the spectacular Web designs and discuss them.
Kamil Kaniuk: We think that in Poland there are still no styles in Web design that would distinguish our country from others — that is, that any styles are unequalled. Although one could fairly easily enumerate some common features of designs created elsewhere (the meticulous detail and profound illustrations of Russia, for example, or the graphic-rich interfaces of the United States), no specific style dominates in Poland. However, the “transfer of ideas” (say from West to East) is much faster now than it was a few years ago.
That opens the gate to creativity and gives the freedom to implement interesting solutions. In many Polish agencies — including those that work with big brands and budgets — some cheap and mediocre designs are created out of necessity.
Question: What is it like to work as a freelancer in Poland? Is it drudgery or a stress-free job? Is it about keeping loyal clients or constantly searching for new ones?
Jan Stańko: We shouldn’t generalize; every freelancer is different. Starting off is definitely difficult. Without a strong position in the market, you have to look for clients on your own, and you have to convince people that you are trustworthy and deserve opportunities. There are plenty of freelancers, but unfortunately the majority of them are young and immature and have no idea about the business. They finish school and immediately call themselves professionals. It can end badly: very often the honest designers who treat the profession seriously and think of it as their future have to suffer the consequences.
In time, the serious freelancer gets clients and agencies start knocking on their door. Then you can choose the tasks you like the most, and that brings more money. Work gets difficult when you want to earn more money; it can mean sleepless nights, gallons of coffee and in my case, unfortunately, plenty of cigarettes.
There are moments of anxiety as well, usually brought on by people who pretend to know everything about the Internet but actually know very little. I guess the best solution is to cooperate with agencies on a regular basis. Agencies can take the burden of work overload and stress off your back. Also, their complex services give you the opportunity to meet more interesting clients. As for the future, time will tell. I’m not even halfway through my career. Trophies are still a long way ahead!
Rafał Nastały: Earning one’s living as a freelancer in Poland without a recognized name can be incredibly tough. Independent clients often don’t want to sign contracts or pre-pay. They also think that preparing a layout is a piece of cake, so when they hear the price, they often back out. It’s very frustrating. It’s much more pleasant to cooperate with several agencies that can give you a fairly constant number of orders.
Piotr Biernawski: I have five or six regular clients. Sometimes a client withdraws, and it’s usually because of money. It’s never a disagreement about the terms of the contract but about actually sticking to these terms (payment can be long delayed, etc.). But when some go, others come. I’ve been working with longstanding clients for five years now.
Drudgery or a piece of cake? Definitely not a piece of cake. If it wasn’t for my strong connection to the mountains, which I love and where I do my hobbies, I would probably move to a bigger city and look for a full-time job. I also have a wife and child who are not very keen to move. However, I don’t think freelancing is drudgery; I can’t afford the latest model of BMW, but I work only about two hours a day. Even though you need to be psychologically strong to work like this, the lifestyle is great.
Łukasz Bronisz: I think it depends on the individual. Everyone arranges their time and work environment differently. Some people prefer working at night and waking up at dusk in order to meet a deadline. Most of us, however, try to work during regular hours. It allows you to be in touch with agencies, allows you to make light changes and corrections and lets you have a private life too.
I imagine that freelancing in Poland is similar to freelancing in other countries. It can be hard sometimes because of tight schedules or having a number of projects going at the same time. On the other hand, you always have the opportunity to relax or even take a break for a couple of days. No one arranges your time or dictates your schedule.
Also, though, no one checks on you. If you choose to freelance, for which your income depends on how much you work, it’s reasonable to cooperate with several agencies. Doing this usually gives you enough orders that you don’t have to worry about the next month and can concentrate on your work. Of course, it’s always good to look for new projects so that you develop and diversify your designs.
Konrad Wysokiński: It’s still quite difficult to get by as a freelancer in Poland, although there are probably some people who don’t have to worry about work or can be picky about contracts. I often get the impression that people still don’t know what good design is or know that it costs money. For many people, the Internet is still a must: “People are talking about it, so let’s make a website — but make it as cheap as possible.” Some company owners have this attitude. As a result they ask someone, anyone, who knows a little bit about Photoshop (a brother-in-law’s daughter) to create the cheapest website possible. Thankfully, this has been changing steadily, like our society in general, and I hope that our sensitivity to the profession of Web design will increase with time.
Mateusz Jakobsze: The Web design market in Poland has been gradually expanding. A lot of people freelance to get rid of the constraints of working for agencies. They want creative freedom and to earn more money. Undoubtedly, an advantage to freelancing in Poland is the opportunity to work for clients abroad who pay in Euro or American dollars. The ability to choose which clients and agencies to cooperate with is a big advantage as well. I always try to look abroad for new clients and to network. I have some regular clients as well as a couple of interactive agencies that I often collaborate with. We socialize not only at work but also at parties and unofficial get-togethers. It’s good to maintain informal relationships with your clients.
Question: How does the Web design and development market look in Poland? Is it possible to earn one’s living from freelancing alone?
Jan Stańko: It is possible, definitely. Many people are self-subsisting freelancers, including me. There are quite a lot of agencies and enough clients, and whether we get by depends on our hard work, consistency and responsibility. When it comes to cooperation with agencies, it usually goes smoothly; it’s the clients who are the weak link. But even that has been changing. The Internet is still a brand new thing for many people. Non-professionals find it difficult to catch up with the news that keeps popping up in the field, and sometimes this can result in misunderstanding.
Rafał Nastały: Freelancing is not for everyone. You need to be self-disciplined and consistent to work as a freelancer. When you collaborate with agencies that know how to communicate with clients and that pay generously, you can have a relatively high standard of living.
One negative aspect is the lack of credibility at the bank (getting a big loan is difficult), so if you’re not a high-profile Web designer, the best option is to have a full-time job and take additional work from other sources now and then. This creates financial stability. A bonus like that — a well-paid creative task — is actually very nice. There are of course some freelancers for whom one layout is worth more than the monthly earning of others.
Piotr Biernawski: It is certainly possible to earn a living from freelancing. I know some people who earn more than ten thousand a month. I’m not talking about famous names here, but about people from small towns, “unheard of” names in our line of business. Considering the time I devote to work, I am not an example of this, but I can afford everyday living: mortgage, alcohol and cigarettes!
Łukasz Bronisz: I think that the Polish market is pretty good. It’s a young market. Actually the whole business is young. Polish clients have become more aware of the Internet in recent years. Plenty of talented people are in the trade in Poland. If you know how to organize your time effectively, talk to people and sometimes work more than the standard eight hours, then freelancing is enough to earn a living. The important thing is to be consistent and up to date.
Konrad Wysokiński: I’ll quote part of a conversation I had with a colleague, a designer. I asked him once, “Can you earn a living from freelancing?” He said, “It depends on your standard of living.” You can get by, of course, but you probably won’t make a fortune. I often get the impression that in Poland this type of work is considered a craft and is not treated with respect like other “professional” work. We are very far from the image of the Web designer you see in Hollywood movies, who has a five million dollar house with a swimming pool, has his own agent and who is the top Web designer for the most famous brands.
Mateusz Jakobsze: It’s not much different from what you see in other countries. We have many arenas where graphic designers can display their work, like themed blogs and Internet forums. The majority of creative agencies and independent clients look for employees that way.
Freelance Web designing has been developing in Poland: about a quarter of agencies outsource on a regular basis, and more than a third use freelancers for selected projects. So, there are opportunities to work on different brands for different companies, which is good for both present and future freelancers.
Special workplaces and offices have gradually emerged where there is no boss and all the workers are freelancers. We have such a place in Poznań. It’s a great idea to have freelancers from different professions gathered in one place. I hope for more initiatives like that.
Question: What inspires you? Do you approach every design differently and enthusiastically, or is it sometimes like mass production?
Jan Stańko: Mass production kills creativity, so I avoid it as much as I can. I prefer to do less work better. Then you can show a portfolio that you are really proud of. It’s the only way I work.
Honestly, my inspiration comes from the work of other designers, both from Poland and abroad. Behance.net is a really amazing source, vast and rich. I don’t have a specific example, but this ocean of artistic ideas fuels creativity and prepares you to bring your own ideas to life. Then it just flows.
Rafał Nastały: When I have the freedom of choice and some time on my hands, I try to make something original that appeals to both me and the client. But it sometimes happens that there are several tasks and the deadline is “yesterday.” In this situation, I bear down and work like a robot while trying to maintain a high quality of work. I get inspiration from the Internet. I regularly visit websites devoted strictly to Web design like FWA, DesignFollow and obviously Smashing Magazine. I also visit DesignYouTrust, FormFiftyFive and FFFFound. You can find plenty of great art and designs from many fields.
Piotr Biernawski: Sometimes a free mind, a break from work and lack of inspiration are the best sources of inspiration! I work most effectively after a two-week break in which I do absolutely nothing — but such breaks happen only once in a while. This is why a freelancer needs to be psychologically strong, otherwise getting depressed is easy.
As for inspiration, I have bookmarked several links. They are mostly Polish productions, and I visit them now and then. Given how much I work, this may sound strange, but one’s attitude to design makes a difference. Unfortunately for me, the majority of my recent projects were due “yesterday.” A client pays for fast work, and standards have to be met. There isn’t always a sense of achievement when you work quickly, but as long as the client is satisfied, I’m happy as well. Some interesting projects require more involvement. Usually these are not assigned by agencies but by independent clients who come directly to me. Maybe this tells us something?
Łukasz Bronisz: I treat every design individually and use new ideas and techniques. When I start a project, I try to get a sense of what the client likes, but I also aim to be satisfied with my own work. It’s nice when everything goes smoothly and both the client and agency like your idea. Working with individuals can be tough; sometimes they just don’t appreciate your effort, which can compromise the result. This is typical both in Poland and abroad — at least, that has been my experience.
Konrad Wysokiński: I get inspiration from all around. I sometimes do corporate identity design, which can inspire me. Naturally, I watch the best people at work and keep up with the trends. I’m a fan of grunge design, but very rarely can I use it. Every project is a new challenge for me, so I give my heart and soul to each and every design. I’m never convinced by lines like, “Do it quicker and simpler for a lower price.” I believe it’s impossible to make something look professional without taking a professional approach.
Mateusz Jakobsze: Like every creative job, graphic design requires participation. To keep up to date with all the news in both Web and graphic design, I regularly visit the important portals and blogs devoted to this line of work, be they Polish or international. The crucial ones include Behance, Smashing Magazine, DeviantArt, the FWA and New Web Pic. Additionally, I find reading and browsing books on advertising, typography, designing for the Web (including for portfolios, Flash websites and e-commerce shops) and graphic design useful. It can also be a good way to relax and get away from the digital world to some degree.
The last (but most important) sources of inspiration for me are sleep and having a life outside of work (away from my computer). Socializing with friends and going to parties, cinema, opera and other cultural events renew my energy for creative work.
When it comes to designs, I treat every project differently, but I always try to have a plan, an idea of how to do the project, from beginning to end. I make some sketches, and when know exactly what I want, I get down to work. Every design is a new challenge. I set higher standards for myself every day, and I strive to be the best at what I do.
Showcase Of Beautiful Web Design From Poland
Showcase Of Interactive And Creative Agencies In Poland
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